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D1 Baseball: Taunton 4, Braintree 0

Taunton lefty Connor Johnson pitched a shutout, but was quick to credit his defense, calling it "unbelievable, best defense in the state." Brendan Hall/ESPNBoston.com

TAUNTON, Mass. -– It’s a maneuver the Taunton Tigers have run all year long. And whenever senior second baseman Zach Grady gets on the basepaths, he gets the green light.

In the third inning of a scoreless game with Braintree and its Vanderbilt-bound flamethrower Pat Delano on the hill, Grady ran it without flaw. With no outs and Grady on first off of a single, leadoff hitter Travis Ritchie laid down a bunt that plopped into the infield, and just barely beat the throw to first. All the while, Grady –- considered the team’s fastest baserunner -– was booking it to third, and as he slid in safely head-first to third, Ritchie took another bag.

In the next at bat, catcher Joe Walsh ripped a 3-1 fastball back up the middle, clearing the bases for a 2-0 lead. And while Braintree’s 6-foot-7 ace was good for most of the afternoon, that sequence of events shifted momentum in favor of the Tigers (16-5), who went on to win 4-0 over the Wamps (12-7) in an MIAA Division 1 South first-round matchup at Taunton High.

“We’ve been running it all year,” Grady said. “If I get on, Travis lays down a bunt, I just keep running and put my head down going to third. I see coach waving, and I just keep running.”

The Tigers tacked on two more runs in the bottom of the seventh with some more small-ball tactics. First, outfielder Matt Nunes dunked a ball into right field, and quickly stole two bags to put himself 90 feet from the plate. All the while, third baseman Brad Alconada battled back from an 0-2 deficit to work a full count on Delano, and on the eighth pitch he slapped one at the Wamps’ first baseman, who bobbled it off his chest and nearly fumbled it before making the unassisted play at first. The play scored Nunes, however, for a 3-0 advantage.

Grady cracked a first-pitch single off Delano in the next at bat, after which Braintree skipper Bill O’Connell went to the mound for a meeting. After the next batter, Ritchie, singled again, Delano was done for the day.

The new pitcher, Mike Crowley, didn’t get off to a great start. His first pitch was a wild one, allowing Grady to score from third for the 4-0 advantage.

Delano, in his last start in a quality but injury-riddled career with the Wamps, finished with seven hits allowed, five strikeouts, no walks and two earned runs on 98 pitches.

Defense shines: All afternoon long, the Tigers came up with web gem after web gem playing behind junior lefty Connor Johnson.

There was Nunes’ diving catch on the run in right in the first inning. There was Walsh gunning out a Braintree runner trying to take second. There was Ritchie’s rob of Delano’s potential two-run shot, on the warning track in centerfield. There were the countless backhanded snags by senior Chris Roumbakis at shortstop.

The most important snag came in the top of the ninth, however. With no outs, the bases loaded, and the tying run at the plate, Matt Bickford lined one right to Grady, who promptly caught it and tapped second base for the unassisted double play. Steven Lee grounded out on the next at bat to end the game.

“That’s been our strength all year, and we preach to pitchers: throw strikes, let your defense handle it,” Taunton head coach Jeff Sylvia said. “We’re gonna get hit, teams are going to get hits off of us, but most of the time we’re gonna hopefully make a good defensive play, get out of an inning, make the routine play. That’s what we preach.”

Asked about the defense, Johnson was quick to compliment the players behind him -– “Unbelievable, best defense in the state,” he declared.

Said Braintree head coach Bill O’Connell of the Taunton defense, “We did a lot of work on them, and everyone we spoke with explained about their defense as just outstanding. They made two huge diving catches that might have been extra base hits if they fell. They didn’t, and that’s how you win. You win with pitching and defense.”

Johnson holds his own: This afternoon’s duel on the mound was between hurlers from almost the polar opposite ends of the spectrum. On one end was Delano, a big overpowering hurler who has his high-80’s velocity back almost two years after undergoing Tommy John surgery from the world-renowned Dr. James Andrews.

At the other end was Johnson, a lefty who gave up almost 10 inches to Delano whose specialty is deceptive off-speed stuff. The players behind Johnson raved about his ability to battle, and certainly his stuff was on today. In eight innings, Johnson gave up five hits, walked one and fanned three, alternately jamming and reaching his batters with a sharp, snapping curve.

“It’s come a long way, even this season,” Johnson said of his curve.

Switching things up in BP: Blame this season’s Old Colony League champs for igniting a fire under the Tigers this past week.

Barnstable torched Taunton for 14 runs last weekend to win the league championship outright, and that spurred Tigers coach Jeff Sylvia to try a different approach to batting practice. With the spectre of Delano getting the nod for Braintree, Sylvia decided not to throw off the mound in batting practice the last few days, instead firing at batters from 20 to 25 feet away.

“I was trying to get it on the kids, just so they get their foot down and their hands through,” Sylvia explained. “With guys who throw hard, you don’t have to generate power with your swing. It’s just more speed, the pitcher generates the power. And it worked, I thought we had good swings today.”

Laying the wood: The Old Colony League elected to make the move this season to join several other power conferences as leagues that play nine-inning, wood bat-only games. That experience has clearly conditioned the Tigers for a game like today – with wood-bat hits at a premium at the high school level, you tend to try and make the most out of your time on the basepath, if not at least play smarter.

“Absolutely, it’s a different game with the wood bats,” Sylvia said. “But we still kept the same mentality. We tried to squeeze, move guys over, sacrifice guys, and the bunt-and-run, that was all incorporated with the wood bat, so we tried to continue that.”